SpaceX poised for high stakes satellite launch

  AP

SpaceX, the upstart rocket company owned by tech maverick Elon Musk, faces what might be its biggest challenge Monday with the scheduled launch of a costly communications satellite aboard an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket.

It will be the company's first commercial flight requiring a make-or-break second-stage restart in space to put the payload onto the proper trajectory.

Tens of millions of dollars less expensive than major competing launchers, the redesigned Falcon 9, making its first operational launch after a test flight in September, represents a potentially attractive alternative in an industry dominated by larger, more traditional companies fielding more expensive rockets.

Those rockets have long flight histories and, despite the occasional failure, a demonstrated reliability and well understood performance.

With Monday's launching and subsequent flights, SpaceX hopes to show skeptics its lower-cost rockets not only can compete on the high frontier, but eventually capture a significant share of the commercial launch market.

"Let me put this very clearly," said Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, the Luxembourg-based company that decided to risk its SES-8 satellite on the first operational flight of the upgraded Falcon 9. "The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a game changer. It's going to really shake the industry to its roots. We're very excited to be a part of this."

SpaceX already made a name from itself winning a $1.6 billion NASA contract to launch supplies to the International Space Station, following up with a series of successful test flights and two operational cargo delivery missions. A third is on tap in February. SpaceX also is competing for a NASA contract to build a manned version of its Dragon cargo ship.

To muscle in on the commercial launch market, Musk needed to upgrade his Falcon 9 rocket to meet the needs of civilian communications satellites. And he needed a satellite owner willing to take a risk on a new booster from a company with a short track record and a non-traditional approach to rocket building.

SpaceX took care of the first requirement itself, equipping its Falcon 9 rocket with lighter, more efficient engines, longer propellant tanks, a new nose cone fairing, a triply redundant computer system and other upgrades that also will be needed for eventual manned flights.

As for the second, SpaceX found an enthusiastic partner in SES, one of the largest satellite operators in the world with a fleet of 54 relay stations.

"This is our 55th launch, so we know a little bit about launching satellites," Halliwell said. "We see these guys as a very key player. I think all the other launch vehicle providers are looking with great interest to the success, or not, of this launch, and I think they will be ... rather worried for their future and how they organize themselves, they're industrial processes, to be competitive in the commercial launch market of the future."

Speaking with reporters Sunday at a pre-launch gathering in Cocoa Beach, Musk warned that rocket flights are inherently risky, but "whether or not this launch is successful, I'm confident we will certainly make it on some subsequent launch."

"I don't want to tempt fate ... but I think it's going to have a pretty significant impact on the world launch market and on the launch industry because our prices are the most competitive of any in the world," he said.

If SpaceX can deliver, the company's competitors "will have to improve their designs and really strive to have next-generation rocket technology," Musk said. "So I think SpaceX could be a powerful forcing function for the improvement of rocket technology. Not just the stuff we do ourselves, but in that we will force other rocket companies to either develop new technology that's a lot better or they have to exit the launch market."

Or, Halliwell added, "They have to improve their industrial process very, very significantly, and that's really where SpaceX has rocked the show."

The 224-foot-tall Falcon 9 was scheduled for liftoff from complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:37 p.m. EST Monday. Forecasters are predicting an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather.

Mounted inside a protective nose cone is a 24-transponder GEOStar 2 relay station built by Orbital Sciences Corp., a state-of-the-art communications satellite that will join another SES comsat already in orbit to provide direct-to-home television, broadband internet and other services to India and southeast Asia.

The satellite is valued at around $100 million. The exact cost of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket is not known, but the company website advertises prices between $56.5 million and $77.1 million.

For comparison, a Russian-built Proton rocket, marketed by International Launch Services, a U.S. subsidiary of Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, is believed to sell for around $100 million. A heavy-lift Ariane 5, marketed by the European consortium Arianespace and typically used to launch two satellites at a time, is believed to run around $200 million to $225 million per rocket.

This is only the second launch of an upgraded Falcon 9, known as version 1.1, following a test flight in late September. That mission successfully delivered a Canadian research satellite to low-Earth orbit, but a test to restart the second stage engine -- a requirement for launching large communications satellites -- failed.

Musk told reporters Sunday the problem turned out to be relatively easy to fix. He said a fluid feed line to the engine's igniter froze up, the result of low temperatures in space and the effects of a nearby liquid oxygen line. The problem was corrected by adding insulation and ensuring the cold oxygen could not impinge on the feed line.

Halliwell said his company had no second thoughts about putting its latest satellite on board the Falcon 9 v1.1 for the rocket's first commercial flight.

"There was a lot of criticism when we went with this rocket, yeah, it's never done this, it's never been to geo, it's never launched commercial, etc., etc.," he told CBS News. "But you'll remember back in 1996, we had a very similar situation when we were the first people to fly the Proton. You know how that story panned out, and I think we're going to have the same situation with SpaceX. We look behind us and we've got a queue of people lining up to sign with SpaceX."

To launch heavy communications satellites into the elliptical transfer orbits they require to reach a "geostationary" perch 22,300 miles above the equator, upper stages must fire at least twice: once to complete the climb out of the dense lower atmosphere and then again to raise the high point of the orbit to the operational altitude or, depending on the satellite, much higher.

For the SES-8 launch, the SpaceX booster must place the 3.2-ton satellite into an elliptical "super-synchronous" orbit with a low point, or perigee, of 183 miles and a high point, or apogee, of around 53,748 miles.

Assuming a successful launch, the satellite's own propulsion system will be fired five times between Wednesday and Dec. 6 to lower the apogee, raise the perigee and fine-tune the orbital plane to reach the desired target 22,300 miles above the equator at 95 degrees east longitude.

Once on station, SES-8, like all geostationary relay stations, will take 24 hours to complete one orbit and thus appear to hang motionless in the sky as viewed by fixed antennas on the ground. The satellite is expected to enter service in early January.

"We want to have as many launch vehicles in the marketplace as possible," Halliwell told CBS News Friday. "At the moment, from a commercial point of view, there are only two. You either have the ILS Proton or you have the Ariane 5. Ostensibly you also have (the United Launch Alliance) Atlas 5, but of course it's just so expensive it's not terribly viable from a commercial point of view.

"So really, we were looking for something that would give us the opportunity to be extremely cost effective to orbit."

As for the issue that marred the upgraded rocket's September test flight, Halliwell said SpaceX explained the fix to SES engineers, who inspected the rocket's engines. He said insurers also were briefed and "they're comfortable and we're moving forward. We have 100 percent insurance on this one."

The Falcon 9 v1.1 features a variety of upgrades and improvements over the original design.

At the base of the first stage, nine Merlin 1D engines are arranged in a circular "octaweb" pattern with eight power plants surrounding a central engine. The original version had the engines arranged in a square 3-by-3 arrangement, requiring aerodynamic panels around the base of the rocket.

In the new version, protective panels are positioned to prevent a malfunctioning engine from damaging a neighbor. The first stage also features longer propellant tanks a heat shield, part of an ongoing program to test techniques for eventually recovering spent first stages.

The v1.1 version of the Falcon 9 is the company's first to incorporate a large payload fairing that can encapsulate big satellites. Another major upgrade was a triply redundant flight computer running new software. Before the first test flight, Musk said, "You could put a bullet hole in any one of the avionics boxes and it would just keep flying."

Other improvements include a simpler, more reliable mechanisms to connect the rocket's stages, using three connectors in place of nine.

The new Merlin 1D engines feature more efficient fuel injectors and weigh in at under 1,000 pounds each. The company said improvements in robotic manufacturing techniques, along with fewer parts, make the engines easier to build and improve reliability.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

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